Sylvia’s Birthday

Our friend Sylvia planned a gala birthday fest for herself at Scaletta, a beautiful Italian restaurant on West 77th St., across from the Museum of Natural History. The guests included all those who had helped her out this winter, when she fell and fractured her pelvis. There were seven of us at a round table in the back, with Sylvia presiding, facing the restaurant, waving us into the warm embrace of her party.

As we gathered, were introduced, and perused the menu, the wine list ended up in my hands. Funny how that happens. Some people preferred white, some red, so I ordered two bottles for the table. The white was our old friend, Friulano, from the Friuli region of Italy, hard up against the alpine border with Slovenia. The maker was La Tunella and the vintage, alas, is forgotten, although I’m sure it was recent, 2008, perhaps, since Friulano is best drunk young.

The wine was floral and fruity, with a touch of pear and almond. I drank it with my beef carpaccio. The moderate acidity was sufficient to cleanse the palate between bites of tangy arugola and parmigiano reggiano. In the meantime, the sommelier was busy decanting the red, a 2004 Amarone from Santi.

Amarone comes from the Veneto region, about 100 miles southwest of Friuli. It is a Recioto della Valpolicella, i.e., a style of the familiar Valpolicella, made from the classic blend of corvina, rondinella and molinara grapes. The grapes are dried, or raisined, for a period of months. The development of botrytis is sometimes encouraged, or discouraged, depending on the producer. When the drying process is complete, the grapes are pressed and fermented to dryness, then aged in wood. The result is a powerful wine, highly alcoholic, fruity, intensely spiced, and often with a pleasantly bitter aftertaste.

As the decanter passed around the table, the red wine lovers sniffed and smiled, sipped and exclaimed. Even Sylvia, who ordinarily will not drink red wine, pronounced the Amarone delicious. It was a seafood night — salmon, halibut, monkfish, scallops and clams — yet the lushness of the Amarone did not seem to overpower the delicate flavors; if anything, the alcohol, perceived as sweetness, contrasted nicely.

The real sweetness arrived with the dessert cart. The waiter sliced a selection from the tarts and cakes and placed them in the center of the table for all to share. The sommelier arrived with Moscato d’Asti for everyone. This gem of the Piedmont, semi-sweet, low alcohol and slightly fizzy, is a perfect coda to any meal, Sylvia’s birthday bash being no exception.

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